‘The best will be legendary’
Heat, drought, and a very early harvest. Also freshness, salinity, and fantastic terroir expression. The whites, contrary to what you would expect from a warm year, are bright and high-energy. The reds are succulent and intense, sometimes dark and concentrated, but almost universally given wings by some surprisingly crisp acidity. The lack of water for much of the 2020 vintage concentrated acidity and terroir expression as much as sugar and returned wines that are surprisingly fresh and balanced. It was a hot vintage, but that does not show at all in the wines. It was an easy vintage to taste en primeur; the high levels of terroir transparency made individual wines in each producer’s profile more diverse than they often are. They are also, on average, very good. Burgundy 2020s are a fantastic set of wines. Many of the reds are powerful and structured, and will need time to come round. It is very much a cellar vintage. In the assessment of Burgundy critic, authority and resident Jasper Morris MW, ‘the best will be legendary’.
The season: 1580 and all that
Winter 2019-2020 was mild and rainy. Given what was to follow, that rain was a great thing, building up essential water reserves for the dry months ahead. The mild weather meant the growing season started early. The danger of an early growing season is vulnerable new buds being killed by a late frost - such frosts have caused enormous damage in recent vintages. In 2020, growers had their frost candles ready and watched weather forecasts religiously, but it proved to be the first vintage since 2015 when the vineyards were largely untroubled by spring frosts. Flowering came very early, beginning on the 9th of May, pointing to a late August harvest. (Harvest is conventionally predicted as falling 100 days after the mid-point of flowering). It was also a very successful flowering. Flowers develop into grapes, and the proliferation of incipient grapes suggested a bountiful harvest. Growers enjoyed an easy time, with the warm and dry conditions meaning there was almost no disease pressure in the vineyards. Then the drought began in June. No rain fell apart from a few localized showers between June and September. Temperatures rose steadily, and spiked in the first week of August. Many domaines described losing 20% of their fruit at this point, with sunburnt and dessicated grapes falling off the bunches. Joseph Colin told us that on some chalky, well-drained parcels he lost 60% of his fruit to hydric stress. Vineyards on water-retentive clay soils fared a bit better. Whilst flowering had pointed to a late August harvest, with ripening going on in the long, hot days of August (as opposed to the shorter days that would have come in advance of a September harvest) many growers realized they were going to have start to harvest even earlier than predicted. For many domaines it would be their earliest harvest ever. (A few had begun a day or two earlier in 2003). A harvest starting in August used to be a rarity in Burgundy, but with the influence of climate change over the last two decades, it has become less unusual. Joseph Colin and Vincent Rapet both brought in their first fruit on the 15th of August – a few growers started even earlier, on the 12th. Joseph Colin told us that he later did some historical research, and declared 2020 to be the earliest harvest ever. The previous record for earliest ever harvest had been 1580.
One difficulty with an August harvest is that, through intense heat and long days, the fruit is ripening very fast. When sugar and hence alcohol levels go past a certain point, growers say that wines lose focus, and terroir distinctiveness becomes blurred. At this time of year, an extra day or two can mean an extra half-percent of alcohol in the finished wine, so it was a high-pressure harvest. Growers rushed to get grapes in as fast as they could; some described being forced to choose which plots they would pick at their most optimum moment, and which might just have to wait a day or two longer. At Dugat-Py, they employed 60 pickers (rather than their usual 30) to get all their fruit in as fast as possible. The more switched-on growers hired refrigerated trucks to enable them to pick through the day whilst keeping the fruit in tip-top condition. (It’s not a problem to pick grapes when it’s hot outside, but you mustn’t press grapes when they are hot). In retrospect, many growers admit an August harvest was a good thing. Lockdown restrictions had been lifted in France by August 2020, but they were reimposed in September, and the human logistics of a September harvest would have been more complicated. As it was, with good August weather, pickers were happy to distance in the vineyards and eat lunch outdoors. Most domaines had brought in all their fruit by the end of August. We did also hear about some domaines (not ones we work with) that took completely the opposite tack, and waited till September to start harvesting, in the hope of getting some rain; but unfortunately, that rain did not come.
In the end, though, most growers were delighted (and very often surprised!) by the combination of quality and freshness in their fruit. Etienne Grivot said ‘I never observed such high maturities with such fresh acidity’. Charles Magnien shrugged and said, ‘it was impossible for me to imagine the wines could be so fresh after a 25th August harvest’. Romain Taupenot said, ‘if only we had had a bit of rain at the right time, we would have made a benchmark vintage for generations.’ But even so, he said, ‘I don’t remember such a structured vintage, ever.’
After the extremely successful May flowering, growers were looking forward to a high-yield harvest. Romain Taupenot told us that early in the season, he was looking at predicted yields of 60 hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare). Not only are volumes like that well above the maximum permitted for most appellations, but especially for red wines they would mean a dilution of quality. (Chardonnay copes better with higher volumes than Pinot Noir). So in March, before flowering, he undertook an aggressive debudding programme, with the ultimate aim of a smaller harvest of better quality fruit. Which was all very well – but then the drought got stuck in, and suddenly predicted yields were dropping fast. It wasn’t just a case of some fruit dying on the vine. In the heat, grapes lost water and became more concentrated. By the time harvest arrived, skin-to-juice ratios were unusually high. In most vintages, a grower would expect to need around 320kg of grapes to make one barrel of wine. But in 2020, with less juice in the grapes at harvest, it took an average of 360kg of grapes to make that same barrel. Having started the season with predictions of 60 hl/ha, Romain ended up with final yields of between 15-25 hl/ha, depending on the vineyard. It was a similar story at other domaines. Romain ruefully admitted to us that the extent of his debudding programme had been a mistake. ‘The most useful piece of winemaking technology which I don’t possess,’ he said, ‘is a crystal ball’.
Just another – or like no other?
We often ask producers if a current vintage reminds them of another. Discussing 2020, many growers said the year reminded them of 2003 for its heat and early harvest - before going on to point out the differences. The 2003 season was more defined by sudden heat spikes (which vines find traumatic) than the generally more evenly rising temperatures of 2020. The 2003 heat spikes brought on an early harvest that caught growers by surprise, and many had to rush back early from their summer holidays to start picking. In 2020, everyone knew an early harvest was on its way. Most crucially, in 2020 the nights stayed relatively cool, providing the diurnal variation that can make for truly great wines, whereas in 2003 it stayed hot at night, allowing the vines no respite. 2020s have a minerality and structure that many producers told us was mostly lacking in the 2003s, a lot of which have not aged well. Some growers referenced other vintages. Cyprien Arlaud said 2020 combined the floral character of 2013 with the concentration of 2010; Frédéric Lafarge said it combined the energy of 1990 with the climate of 1959. Many growers told us simply that the 2020 harvest was not like any other they had worked.
Trending now, in white
In white Burgundy, Uncorked tends to favour producers who harvest early and aim for a fresh, zesty style. For a while, these producers were ahead of the curve, but it is increasingly the mode now. Some of our producers, who would usually expect to be the first among their neighbours to harvest, reported that this year that was not the case. A few felt that some neighbours might in fact have started too early. The danger of a too-early harvest is acidity without much fruit or ripeness for the acidity to lift, which means a tart wine. One distinguished white wine producer told us, ‘Now everyone wants to make lean wines, but some of them are just acidity.’ It’s not uncommon to hear the opinion that in due course, the pendulum will swing back towards a slightly richer style gaining favour again.
This year, several white winemakers were talking about debourbage, and specifically how they weren’t doing it anymore. That means they aren’t racking off the gross lees (the largest dead yeast cells) after fermentation. In quality white-winemaking, it is not unusual to rack the wine off the gross lees but leave it on the (smaller) fine lees for some months, in the interests of developing flavour, texture and complexity. But more winemakers seem to be letting the wine lie on the gross lees as well. Vincent Rapet said that the long-lived whites of yesteryear would all have spent time on the gross lees. Vincent Dureuil-Janthial told us that a wine quickly taken off its lees will show well young, but not then age well, whereas a white given time on the gross lees might be reductive when young, yet destined to age much better. (The term ‘reduction’ refers to a wine that has been made in the absence of oxygen. Overdone, it can make wines smell of rubber or blocked drains. But a deftly-handled touch of reduction expressing itself in a gunflint character is a characteristic of some of the most sought-after and expensive white Burgundy: names like Roulot and Coche-Dury spring to mind). Joseph Colin told us that not only do lees help you make a high-energy style of white (very much his calling card), they also impart protective qualities, reducing the need for any sulphur additions. The caveat to skipping debourbage is you have to be pretty confident about the quality of your fruit. Vincent Dureuil-Janthial told us that in a vintage like 2021, when fungal diseases were prevalent in the vineyards, there is too much danger of the gross lees importing off flavours, and the gross lees have to be racked off quickly. That winemaking decision suggests that such 2021 whites will show well when young, and will be better enjoyed while still young.
Whole bunch v destemming: the debate rages on
One of the defining debates around red Burgundy in recent years has been between the proponents of destemming all the grapes before putting them in the fermentation vat, versus those who favour using a proportion of whole bunch grapes, i.e. stems and all.
The proponents of destemming grapes argue that it gives wine a purer fruit character, and avoids the danger of the bitter flavours than can be imported from underripe stems. That’s a real danger - stems ripen later than fruit, so while your grapes may be perfectly ripe, that doesn’t mean the stems are. The advocates of using whole-bunch fruit say it brings both freshness and complexity to a wine.
This is a modern debate. Before the Second World War, most winemaking involved whole bunch fermentation. Hand-destemming of grapes was too labour-intensive for winemaking except on a small scale. Then the invention of mechanical destemmers changed the way wine could be made. The late, great Henri Jayer convinced a generation of Burgundians they needed to destem all their grapes; more recently, there has been a reappraisal of the advantages using stems (or more usually, a proportion of stems).
It’s a complicated debate on which there doesn’t seem to be consensus, and there are favourite Uncorked producers on both sides. Barthod, Bertheau, Taupenot-Merme and Meo-Camuzet destem all their fruit, bar the odd experimental cuvee. Arlaud, Dugat-Py and Dujac all favour using a high proportion of whole bunch fruit in their fermentations. Fourrier has jumped the fence from being a domaine where everything was destemmed; in 2019 and again in 2020, Jean-Marie used 20% whole cluster across the range, in the interests of bringing freshness to the wine in a hot year. It was common to hear the line that if you are ever going to use stems, then a year like 2020, when the stems are guaranteed to be ripe, is the one to do it in. But Marie Jacqueson took the opposite tack. Having experimented with whole bunch in a couple of cuvees in 2018, she avoided them in 2020. She argued that while stems may bring a flavour impression that people associate with freshness, they also lower acidity, which could be a problem in a hot vintage. (Stems contain potassium, which causes acidity to precipitate out of the wine). At Tawse, winemaker Mark Fincham disputed the assertion that stems bring freshness; in his view, they just bring a particular flavour impression which can variously be described as stemmy, leafy, vegetal, and which people simply associate with wines made in cooler vintages.
At the consumer end, some people don’t like the flavour imprint that stems bring to a young wine. I fall into this category, but I also note that this flavour imprint seems to resolve with age. Some of the most beautiful bottles of mature Burgundy I have ever enjoyed were wines that had seen a significant proportion of stems when they were made.
One subject that came up a lot in discussions about 2020 Burgundy was 161.49. That’s a rootstock, widely planted across the region from the 1980s onwards. It was hitherto considered by many growers to be the Rolls Royce of rootstocks, disease resistant and favouring good yields of good-quality fruit. But it has one fatal flaw, and in recent vintages that flaw has been coming to the fore: it doesn’t like drought. In the dry 2015 vintage, many vines planted on this rootstock died. Even more died in 2020. The most vulnerable vines are those planted on thin, well-drained soils – which happens to be the norm in the greatest vineyards. On the hill of Corton, where the upper slopes have very thin soils, Vincent Rapet surveyed his vineyards and told us it was getting to the point where, rather than replanting individual wines as-and-when they die, it was time for him to consider wholesale replanting of some plots. In the shadow of global warming, with drier vintages in Burgundy becoming more normal, this problem is predicted to get worse. We heard one estimate that 10% of all vineyards in Burgundy might need to be replanted over the next few years.
2021 and the kitchen sink
The 2020 and 2021 harvests could not be more different. In 2021 nature threw everything it had at exhausted vignerons: frost, hail, disease. Quality-minded producers were still able to make good wine, but only in very small quantities: yields across the region in 2021 were the lowest in forty years. While tasting the 2020s, we saw cellar after impoverished cellar where there were only a few barrels of 2021 wine reposing. ‘I have never seen the cellars so empty’ was a common refrain.
Coming soon, the 2020 campaign
The shortage of 2021s will inevitably have an impact on the upcoming 2020 campaign. For one thing, we don’t expect 2020s to be cheaper than 2019s. The shortage of wine has already had a big impact on pricing inside the region. Basic-quality Aligoté being bought for blending into supermarket wines was changing hands for 500 euros per barrel one year ago; the equivalent barrels are now going for 1400 euros. Also, with very little 2021 wine to offer, growers are mindful of the need to even out their cashflow. Several of them told of us their plans to hold back one or more 2020 cuvees to offer in a year’s time along with their 2021s – so you might not see every 2020 wine you are expecting this time round. We expect interest in the 2020s to be high, and there will be less wine to go around than last year. While we will always do our best to look after previous purchasers, allocating the 2020s will inevitably involve some tricky juggling acts. Wishlists and prompt responses are always helpful. Wines will be offered from January. /NT